Frank Bascombe claims to be a literalist. But he might better be described as a fabulist, constantly lying to himself and others, inventing life histories for chance acquaintances (which mostly turn out to be far from accurate), and struggling to reassert his personal narrative in the face of his oldest son’s death two years previous, his inconsistent actions since that time, and the end of his marriage. He exists, often, in a dreamlike state, muddled and meandering, often overtly acting at cross-purposes with his best intentions. By contrast, what he admires in the athletes about whom he writes is that they can be within themselves, in the moment, totally fixated upon the task at hand. He aspires to that level of unconcern with his surroundings, his past, and his future. But Frank was never an athlete even in college, and in the end it is his words that must see him through.
It takes some time to get to know Frank, not least because of how poorly he knows himself. He praises mystery—in life, in people, and in circumstance—and says he wants to preserve it, yet he is the consummate explainer, filling in all the details of a person’s life even when, in most cases, he has to invent it. He himself is unclear about what he means by mystery. Perhaps it has something to do with the son for whom he is entombed in mourning. Perhaps it has something to do with his persistently spouting proposals of marriage, but never in such a way that they could be taken seriously. He is a man divorced from his wife, from the politics of his time, from his own family history. He seems to be adrift in a sea of suburbs and insubstantial, place-holder, accommodations, that can neither substitute for the absence of community nor inspire hope for the future. His monthly gentlemen’s club for divorced men might easily be a model for all of our modern relations—insincere, uncommitted, grasping after distractions in order to avoid the real issues and emotions that are thundering down upon us. The very distractions in which the sportswriter specializes.
Ford’s writing here is deft and subtle. Frank Bascombe is a man of words, by nature and by profession. But what purpose do his words serve, either when he was a short story writer, or in his career as a sportswriter? He claims that with his sportswriting he is doing about all a man could hope to do in addressing the problems of family, community, nation, even life itself. But he doesn’t really believe it, does he? He is a man hiding from himself, perhaps, and his real fear may be the literal truth he cannot face.
This is no novel to be raced through. It needs to be savoured, maybe even mellowed by age. I’m not sure I would have liked it as much had I read it more than twenty years ago, when it was first published and when I was more than twenty years younger. Reading it today, it felt entirely apt. Certainly, long before the end I had reached the conclusion that Ford is a writer more than worthy of the effort. I would gladly read this novel again. And anything else Richard Ford has going. Highly recommended.